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Help your child outgrow separation anxiety

  • Story Highlights
  • Expert: Separation anxiety fairly common among children 6 to 10
  • Kids usually outgrow the fear, but parents can help speed the process
  • Make sure the child meets new teacher, sees new seat before school starts
  • Send along a transitional item -- photo, special toy, note -- to help ease fears
  • Next Article in Health »
By Judy Fortin
CNN
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DUNWOODY, Georgia (CNN) -- Wearing his new backpack and school uniform, 5-year-old Sebastian Grau looked pretty confident walking down the hallway of Austin Elementary in Dunwoody, Georgia, on his first day of kindergarten. But his parents tell a different story.

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Sebastian Grau, 5, tries to be brave as he says goodbye to Dad on the first day of kindergarten.

"I was up half of the night worried about Sebastian and what our transition would be like today," says his mother, Heidi Grau. "We've had some rough transitions in previous years, so I was hoping for the best."

Rough may be an understatement. Joerg Grau, Sebastian's father, admits the boy really suffered from separation anxiety during preschool years. "He would cry every day for the first year. ... Oftentimes, the teacher would have to grab him from my leg and I would have to sneak out."

The Graus' story may sound extreme, but clinical psychologist Mark Crawford says separation anxiety is fairly common among children ages 6 to 10. "It's most often associated with a child's fear of something happening to a parent if they are not there to watch over them," Crawford explains. "Children have this irrational fear that, 'If I can't see Mom or see Dad, something may happen to them and they may not come back.' "Video Health Minute: Watch more on helping your child overcome separation anxiety »

Crawford suggests a child doesn't have to be going off to school to experience anxiety. It can happen at home when a parent leaves a room for a couple of minutes. "It's pretty dramatic. Typically, what happens is children will cling onto the parents, quite literally, they will grab on to their leg or their hand. They'll almost have a panic response."

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The behavior usually occurs with one parent and not the other, Crawford says. "Anxiety in kids can look sometimes like defiance, rebellion, anger or stubbornness when it's really just panic, kids panicking because they are so afraid."

Children will eventually outgrow separation anxiety, Crawford says, but there are many things parents can do to speed up the process.

Make sure children meet their new teacher and see where they'll sit in the classroom before school starts in order to get familiar with the environment.

Allow the child to pick out a new backpack and school supplies. Sending along a transitional item like a photo, special toy or note from Mom or Dad can help ease fears on the first day.

Crawford advises parents to model confidence. "What happens a lot of times -- a parent's anxiety feeds the child's anxiety. ... Just say 'I'll be fine. You'll be fine. This is where you're supposed to be, and I will be here, and everything will be OK.' "

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The Graus spent a lot of time before the start of school talking with Sebastian about the transition. "We were preparing him so that things didn't come out of the blue so he has an idea what's going to happen," says Joerg Grau.

The extra effort seemed to pay off. Sebastian didn't cry or get emotional when his parents left him in the classroom. "He did fantastic!" his father exclaimed. "I was a little worried when I gave him a hug and a kiss, because he started giving me a big hug and didn't want to let go, but he did great. It was much better than anticipated." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.

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